By Tyler Duke
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thursday, July 20, 2017
When Reggie Ball was a senior at Stephenson High School, LSU, Alabama, Louisville, Auburn, and Georgia were among a host of schools that came to recruit him, the only problem was that they didn’t believe in him as a quarterback.
Georgia Tech did — and why wouldn’t it?
Ball passed for more than 2,000 yards in his senior season and sported a healthy 19-to-2 touchdowns to interceptions ratio. The accolades quickly came. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ranked him in the top 50 in Georgia and named him first-team all-state and DeKalb County offensive player of the year. The Rivals website placed him among the top 15 duel-threat quarterbacks in the nation.
Ball instantly felt trust with the Tech coaching staff. Former assistant Tommy Raye put his job on the line for him.
“(Raye) was a guy that actually stood up on a table and said, ‘Get this guy a scholarship or let me go,”’ Ball said.
As the dust from the recruiting trail settled, Ball said the idea of staying home in Atlanta sealed it for him.
“It was a dream come true to feel like somewhat of a college hero in the city,” Ball said. “A city that I loved.”
Time would tell that the relationship between Ball and Tech would be the ultimate characterization of a polarizing player and a love-hate relationship — a perplexing quarterback and the undulating journey scrutinized by a fan base yearning for success.
Amid the highs and lows of upset victories and bitter losses to Tech’s archrival, Ball’s life was forever changed, but not as much as it was transformed by a young boy who saw Ball through the eyes of hero worship.
A memorable night in Death Valley
Ball was a sophomore when Tech played at Clemson on Sept. 11, 2004. Trailing 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Yellow Jackets faced a tall task against the No. 20 Tigers. Tech earlier cut into a 10-point lead with a long touchdown drive capped by a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ball to Levon Thomas.
The score gave Tech its first points since Ball’s 37-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Calvin Johnson early in the game. That was the first touchdown for Johnson in his career, and he’d have more to come on that wondrous night.
Facing a second-and-11 from near midfield with the clock ticking close to three minutes, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta dialed up a blitz, hoping to get the ball back to the offense. Instead, Kyle Browning found a massive hole through the middle and went 54 yards for a daggering touchdown.
As the Clemson faithful celebrated, ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger pronounced Tech’s fate: “That has probably put this one away for the Clemson Tigers.”
But young Carter Martin wouldn’t give up on Tech … not with Ball at quarterback.
One young fan’s belief
Carter grew up in a house divided. His mom, Leigh Ann, graduated from the University of Georgia and did all she could to get Carter to join her as a Bulldogs fan. She succeeded at bringing along the oldest son, Candler, to her side, and Carter jumped aboard as well for a while. His father, Scott, grew up as a diehard Tech fan, which certainly had to do with the fact that Carter’s grandfather, Jon Martin, played under legendary coach Bobby Dodd in one of his final seasons at Tech.
A diagnosis in January 2003 eventually changed Carter’s fandom. Ewing’s Sarcoma, an aggressive type of bone cancer, forced him to undergo 13 cycles of chemotherapy. After four rounds, he had rotationplasty surgery that removed a portion of his leg. After completing treatment in December 2003 that produced clean scans, Carter relapsed two months later.
“We were told to focus on quality of time with Carter and not quantity,” his mother said. “We knew our 7-year-old son was going to die.”
Carter’s grandfather arranged for him to take a tour around the football facilities in March 2004 and meet Reggie Ball.
“I remember … and I’m being 100 percent honest with you,” Ball said. “I said, ‘Why the hell am I being called back out to the field right now.’ I just worked out, I want to go home and lay down. But when I saw him and his brother go crazy to throw and catch … and we were on the real field, we were on The Flats, so they got a big kick out of it. That changed my perspective on a lot of things.
“I was kind of addicted to becoming the best and trying to win and be the hero. That put it all into perspective. I had a conversation with a higher spirit, and I said, ‘So you’re telling me I lift all these weights, run all these sprints just to get 70K people to cheer, but I go outside and play catch in front of nobody, and I make a lifetime memory with a family?’ It made me make sure I checked my faith and just simply believed.”
His mother said she never saw Carter happier than when he played catch with Ball that day. He became a devoted fan. Ball was his hero. In late August, he went home under hospice care with one week to live. On the night of the Clemson game, Carter was in so much pain that he couldn’t sit up in bed to watch. He instead lay on his back and let his dad give him the play-by-play.
After Browning’s touchdown, his father said, “I’m going to go ahead and turn this game off. Tech is going to lose.”
Carter quickly responded with an energy not seen from him in days. He could barely talk. “No dad, leave it on. Tech is going to win.”
Ball … to Johnson … TD!
Ball quickly marched his offense near the Clemson goal line. With 1:50 remaining, he fired what became a staple of the Jackets’ offense to Johnson in the corner of the end zone — the high fade. The 6-foot-5 freshman went up and got it before getting his feet down, bringing Tech within three points.
After a quick stop on defense, the Tigers were forced to punt with 23 seconds remaining. Barring a spectacular return, a simple kick likely would have given Clemson the victory. But the punt didn’t happen. A botched snap rolled past the punter before he fell on top of it at the 11-yard line. Somehow, some way, Tech had 16 seconds left to pull off a miracle.
“That kid … literally one of his last breaths was him telling his dad to leave the game on and saying, ‘Hold on dad, they’re going to win,” Ball said. “So, for a kid to have faith in me like that … I didn’t need any more fans. I know I had a couple. I didn’t need anything else after that. That helped my confidence, and it helped me put a lot of things into perspective.”
The Jackets needed only one play. This time on the opposite side of the field, Ball threw the same high fade to Johnson, and the growing hype of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Ball began. One special fan back home believed in it all.
The next afternoon, Carter Martin died.
A perplexing legacy
Ball never will escape his pass on fourth down later that season against Georgia, a pass thrown intentionally out of bounds as Ball escaped heavy pressure by running out of the pocket. He’ll never live down his interceptions in key moments, such as on Tech’s final play on offense in each of Ball’s final two games against Georgia, both decided by a touchdown or less. In the game that Tech fans want to win most every season, Ball never captured the moment in the chances he received.
He had two wins against Clemson, two wins against Miami — including a massive upset when the Hurricanes were ranked No. 3 in the country — and two wins in two tries over Auburn. But fair or not, he’s still mainly remembered for those games against the Bulldogs.
“I was fresh to the pressure of it all,” Ball said. “I had no idea. All I saw was college football and the NFL on TV, and I said, ‘Hey, I want to hear the crowds roar. I want to be the guy that throws the winning TD. I want to be that guy. I want the camera to follow me. I want Keith Jackson to say my name. I want to be the focal point. I want to lead my team and be great.’ But the stuff that comes along with it, the criticism that comes along with it, it’s tough for a young kid.”
Ball’s playing career never reached the heights he imagined. Many Tech fans still grumble about him and fans of a key rival remember him fondly. But within that narrative lies something more poignant. For a brief time, one young, dying fan reveled in watching Reggie Ball play football, leaving Ball to revel in their one simple game of catch.